WASHINGTON, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- The latest flare-up of violence in Gaza needs to remind President-elect Barack Obama of the urgency in finding a lasting settlement to the conflict in the Middle East. So long as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains unresolved, the risk of a greater conflagration remains a reality.
We are now entering a very dangerous period -- the transition from President George W. Bush to President Obama.
It may be seen as the moment of opportunity by Israel to take decisive action against the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as Hamas.
After a day of brutal aerial bombardment by Israel on Gaza during which more than 250 Palestinians were killed -- including women and children -- the only comment from the Bush White House was to caution Israel to "avoid killing civilians."
This message will most likely be perceived by Israel as a tacit green light from Washington to proceed with their "cleanup" operations in the Gaza Strip.
The bombing of Gaza came in response to Hamas' firing of some 60 rockets at Israel on Christmas Eve.
Palestinians described the bombing of Gaza on Saturday as the "the bloodiest day since the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel first occupied the Strip that until then was under Egyptian administration.
Meanwhile in the Syrian capital, Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas' armed wing, called for the Palestinians to rise up in a third intifada, or uprising, in the Palestinian territories. Sporadic clashes later broke out in parts of East Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
And in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the bombing in Gaza, calling it "a savage Israeli assault."
"Nothing can justify the Israeli aggression on the civilian population of Gaza," said Erekat.
It has been repeated ad nauseam and still it can never be said enough times: Finding a just settlement to the Israel-Palestinian dispute remains one of the most important questions for the stability of the whole world.
The Gaza flare-up could easily spread to other parts of this volatile region, where all the ingredients -- religion, oil, guns, political dissent, authoritative regimes and fanatics of all sorts -- are always ready, able and more than willing to cause mayhem.
The tragedy is that innocent people are dying on both sides of this maddening conflict and yet both sides must be well aware that there cannot be a military solution to this conflict. Israel and the Palestinians must realize that there is no alternative to peaceful negotiations.
One would imagine that after more than 40 years of wars, killings and more killings, the result has never yielded peace. Israel was able to forge peace with Egypt and Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization through negotiations, and not through armed conflict.
The conflict between Hamas and Israel won't be settled on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table. Hamas must understand that it is unrealistic to believe that Israel can be defeated. It cannot. Israel is a nuclear power, and if the Gazans take time out to remember their own history, they will recall the story of Samson. It was supposedly in Gaza that Samson brought down the temple where the Philistines kept him in chains, rather than continue to be humiliated and enchained by his enemies.
And it is equally important for Israel to recognize that Hamas cannot be eradicated. The more they bomb them, the more determined the Palestinians become. Israel has been trying to eradicate the Palestinian resistance for the good part of 40 years. They have bombed them, carried out targeted assassinations of the Palestinian leadership, and invaded and occupied neighboring countries to weaken and distance the Palestinian resistance from their borders. To date, nothing has really worked, except direct negotiations.
There is now a very real danger of the violence spreading to northern Israel if Hezbollah intervenes to help remove some of the pressure on Hamas. The time between now and Jan. 20, when Obama is sworn in as president, is crucial. Israel might take advantage of the political void to try and finish the job in Gaza before the Obama administration moves into the While House.
While Israel's response to Hamas' launching of more than 60 rockets comes as no surprise, continued military operations will buy Israel some time, but ultimately, it will not settle the issue. Quite the contrary.
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)